“We don’t write real people, we don’t read real people”: The secret life of the novel

The Secret life of the novel at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a “let’s have a look under the hood” examination of the process of writing. It worked well with Owen Marshall in the chair and Aussies Sue Woolfe and Kate Grenville and Kiwi Emily Perkins on the panel – they’re all teachers of writing.


Kate likes Bernard Malamud’s statement “I don’t teach writers, I teach writing”. She encourages her students to write playfully, and not to worry about grammar or the market. It is important to “give people permission to speak with the voice that is uniquely theirs”. Sue’s classes are unusual in that students don’t read their work aloud. She thinks it is important to help students “stumble upon something they almost didn’t dare say”. In Emily’s classes, students read each other’s work out.


Owen asked the panellists about reading. Sue said “books parented her”. She loved Enid Blyton, and families not as weird as hers. Kate loved Captain W.E. Johns (Biggles) though says it was “the most appalling tripe”. She made an interesting distinction between “reading as a reader” and “reading as a writer”. Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out was a revelation to her as a writer: “It’s not that good”.

Emily felt a bit the same about reading some of Katherine Mansfield’s earlier work (such as The Tiredness of Rosabel): “You can see the workings … so unlike what she came too” in terms of authorial voice. For Emily

When I think of my childhood, I think of books.

Camping holidays as an adult are a revelation, because now she looks at the landscape whereas before she’d have had her nose in a book.

Fixations and character and research

Emily: “I’m really interested in how we construct ourselves … I find character in fiction so fascinating. All the different alchemies that go with writing and reading … We don’t write real people, we don’t read real people … Character is made on the page. I don’t see hard lines around them …”

Sue: Characters are more a consciousness … “at the end I give them hair and eyes … I don’t create them, I collude with them … they are like imaginary friends.”

Kate:  “There is something quite spooky when character takes over …”

Kate: “I resist the term historical fiction. I avoid it like the plague …. Research shows the contradictions. It doesn’t make sense but I know it happened.

Writing and the arrival of ideas

Emily: “You enter a bubble .. the skin of the world of the book is all around you.”

Kate wrote the outline of her new story on a brown paper bag containing her lunch. Has written ideas on a opened up Panadol packet at a kid’s birthday party.

Sue writes down odd phrases, bits of sentences.

Emily has documents in a computer, and has been known to text ideas to herself if she has no paper.

How to get writing and calm your inner editor

Emily: Just write. “You can’t fix nothing”.

Sue: “I was just writing, I wasn’t trying to make a novel … scene after scene, it made itself into a book … Sometimes the dialogue is right, but it’s been given to the wrong character … Everything is fluid.”

Emily: “Everything is malleable until the last minute”.

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